Yet you want your kid to be an effete snob?
Yes. I want my kid to look at me and say, “Dad, you’re a nice guy, but you’re a fuckin’ dummy.” Hell yes, I want my kid to tell me that he’s not gonna be like me . . .
If I were hiring people to work, I’d try naturally to pay them a decent wage. I’d try to find out their first names, their last names, keep the company as small as possible, so I could personalize the whole thing. All I would ask a man is a handshake, see you in the morning. No applications, nothing. I wouldn’t be interested in the guy’s past. Nobody ever checks the pedigree on a mule, do they? But they do on a man. Can you picture walking up to a mule and saying, “I’d like to know who his granddaddy was?”
I’d like to run a combination bookstore and tavern. (Laughs.) I would like to have a place where college kids came and a steelworker could sit down and talk. Where a workingman could not be ashamed of Walt Whitman and where a college professor could not be ashamed that he painted his house over the weekend.
If a carpenter built a cabin for poets, I think the least the poets owe the carpenter is just three or four one-liners on the wall. A little plaque: Though we labor with our minds, this place we can relax in was built by someone who can work with his hands. And his work is as noble as ours. I think the poet owes something to the guy who builds the cabin for him.
I don’t think of Monday. You know what I’m thinking about on Sunday night? Next Sunday. If you work real hard, you think of a perpetual vacation. Not perpetual sleep . . . What do I think of on a Sunday night? Lord, I wish the fuck I could do something else for a living.
I don’t know who the guy is who said there is nothing sweeter than an unfinished symphony. Like an unfinished painting and an unfinished poem. If he creates this thing one day—let’s say, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It took him a long time to do this, this beautiful work of art. But what if he had to create this Sistine Chapel a thousand times a year? Don’t you think that would even dull Michelangelo’s mind? Or if da Vinci had to draw his anatomical charts thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, eighty, ninety, a hundred times a day? Don’t you think that would even bore da Vinci?
Way back, you spoke of the guys who built the pyramids, not the pharaohs, the unknowns. You put yourself in their category?
Yes. I want my signature on ’em, too. Sometimes, out of pure meanness, when I make something, I put a little dent in it. I like to do something to make it really unique. Hit it with a hammer. I deliberately fuck it up to see if it’ll get by, just so I can say I did it. It could be anything. Let me put it this way: I think God invented the dodo bird so when we get up there we could tell Him, “Don’t you ever make mistakes?” and He’d say, “Sure, look.” (Laughs.) I’d like to make my imprint. My dodo bird. A mistake, mine. Let’s say the whole building is nothing but red bricks. I’d like to have just the black one or the white one or the purple one. Deliberately fuck up.
This is gonna sound square, but my kid is my imprint. He’s my freedom. There’s a line in one of Hemingway’s books. I think it’s from
For Whom the Bell Tolls.
They’re behind the enemy lines, somewhere in Spain, and she’s pregnant. She wants to stay with him. He tells her no. He says, “if you die, I die,” knowing he’s gonna die. But if you go, I go. Know what I mean? The mystics call it the brass bowl. Continuum. You know what I mean? This is why I work. Every time I see a young guy walk by with a shirt and tie and dressed up real sharp, I’m lookin’ at my kid, you know? That’s it.
WHO SPREAD THE NEWS?BILLY CARPENTER
Newburgh, Indiana, is Lincoln boyhood country. It borders Kentucky to the northwest. The Ohio River sluggishly flows alongside the town; industrial sludge in its waters.
He is twelve. He has been a newsboy, off and on, for seven years. He delivers by bicycle. After school each day he works his paper route for about an hour. On Sunday, he’s up at four in the morning. “It’s dark and it’s spooky. You gotta cut through these woods. It’s scary.” He has sixty-nine customers.
I like my work. You know a lot of guys on your route. If you’re nice, they tell everybody about how nice you are and they would pass it on. But now I’m kind of in a hurry and I do it just any old way to get it done.’Cause it’s wintertime. It gets dark earlier. And if I don’t get home in time, the stuff’s cold and it ain’t any good.
Before, I’d put it anywhere they’d want me to. I still do for this old man, he’s a cripple. I put it on the table. But for the guys who can walk, if I have to put it on the porch for everybody, it’d take me about two hours. This one lady, she lives about thirty yards from the street. I just throw the paper. She came one day and started to bawl me out ’cause she got a box. You gotta go up this alley, turn around, and go to the box on the side of the house. It takes about a minute. If I had to do it for everybody, I’d never get done. Then she says, “Put it in the door.” I’ll put it in the door. Now she keeps the door locked, so I just throw it on the porch.
They used to bawl us out more. They don’t do it so much now. They hold back payin’ you. I collect at the beginning of the month. About three of my people, it’s hard to collect. This one is always gone. He comes home around twelve o’clock and he leaves about six in the morning. I’d usually be able to catch him. I can’t now.
Will your experience as a newsboy help you get along in the world?
Oh yeah. You can get a good job as a salesman, like selling encyclopedias and stuff in your later life. I would. Because you would get a lot of money.CLIFF PICKENS
A colleague of Billy Carpenter, he too is twelve. He has fifty-four customers.
It’s fun throwing papers. Sometimes you get it on the roof. But I never did that. You throw the paper off your bicycle and it lands some place in the bushes. It’ll hit part of the wall and it’ll bounce down into the bushes and the bushes are so thick that it’ll go—boongg! That’s pretty fun, because I like to see it go boongg! (Laughs.) It bounces about a foot high. You never expect bushes to bounce. I always get it out of the bushes and throw it back on their porch.
The people down at the pool hall, they reach back in my basket while I’m not lookin’ and steal my papers. But they always give ’em back. They just tease me. I don’t know their names. They’re all kinds of guys, young guys, older guys. I usually go up there and say, “Okay, hand it over. I know you guys stuff it up your shirt.” If they don’t give it to me, I raise up their shirt and grab it. It’s good to be a newsboy. You get to really like people.TERRY PICKENS
Cliff’s brother. He is fourteen. He has a Prince Valiant haircut. He is Newburgh’s leading collector of rock recordings as well as its most avid reader of science fiction. There are fifty-seven customers on his paper route, yet it takes him considerably longer to get his work done than Cliff or Billy. “I ride the bike all over the place. I go both sides of the street. Cliff hasn’t got any hills. Mine’s all hills.”
I’ve been having trouble collecting. I had one woman hid from me once. I had another woman tell her kids to tell me she wasn’t home. He says, “Mom, newsboy.” She says (whispers), “Tell him I’m not home.” I could hear it from the door. I came back in half an hour and she paid me. She’s not a deadbeat. They’ll pay you if you get ’em. Sometimes you have to wait . . .
If I don’t catch ‘em at home, I get pretty mad. That means I gotta come back and come back and come back and come back until I catch’em. Go around about nine o‘clock at night and seven o’clock in the morning. This one guy owed me four dollars. He got real mad at me for comin’ around at ten o’clock. Why’d I come around so late? He probably was mad’cause I caught him home. But he paid me. I don’t care whether he gets mad at me, just so I get paid.
I like to have money. It’s nice to have money once in a while instead of being flat broke all the time, Most of my friends are usually flat broke. I spent $150 this summer. On nothing—candy, cokes, games of pool, games of pinball. We went to McDonald’s a couple of times. I just bought anything I wanted. I wonder where the money went. I have nothing to show for it. I’m like a gambler, the more I have, the more I want to spend. That’s just the way I am.
It’s supposed to be such a great deal. The guy, when he came over and asked me if I wanted a route, he made it sound so great. Seven dollars a week for hardly any work at all. And then you find out the guy told you a bunch of bull. You mistrust the people. You mistrust your customers because they don’t pay you sometimes.
Then you get mad at the people at the printing corporation. You’re supposed to get fify-seven papers. They’ll send me forty-seven or else they’ll send me sixty-seven. Sunday mornings they get mixed up. Cliff’ll have ten or eleven extras and I’ll be ten or eleven short. That happens all the time. The printers, I don’t think they care. They make all these stupid mistakes at least once a week. I think they’re half-asleep or something. I do my job, I don’t see why they can’t do theirs. I don’t like my job any more than they do.
Sunday morning at three—that’s when I get up. I stay up later so I’m tired. But the dark doesn’t bother me. I run into things sometimes, though. Somebody’s dog’ll come out and about give you a heart attack. There’s this one woman, she had two big German shepherds, great big old things, like three or four feet tall. One of ’em won’t bite you. He’ll just run up, charging, bark at you, and then he’ll go away. The other one, I didn’t know she had another one—when it bit me. This dog came around the bush. (Imitates barking.) When I turned around, he was at me. He bit me right there (indicates scar on leg). It was bleeding a little. I gave him a real dirty look.
He ran over to the other neighbor’s lawn and tried to keep me from gettin’ in there. I walked up and delivered the paper. I was about ready to beat the thing’s head in or kill it. Or something with it. I was so mad. I called up that woman and she said the dog had all its shots and “I don’t believe he bit you.” I said, “Lady, he bit me.” Her daughter started giving me the third degree. “What color was the dog?” “How big was it?” “Are you sure it was our yard and our dog?” Then they saw the dogs weren’t in the pen.
First they told me they didn’t think I needed any shots. Then they said they’d pay for the doctor. I never went to the doctor. It wasn’t bleeding a whole lot. But I told her if I ever see that dog again, she’s gonna have to get her papers from somebody else. Now they keep the dog penned up and it barks at me and everything. And I give it a dirty look.
There’s a lot of dogs around here. I got this other dog, a little black one, it tried to bite me too. It lunged at me, ripped my pants, and missed me. (With the glee of W. C. Fields) I kicked it good. It still chases me. There are two black dogs. The other one I’ve kicked so many times that it just doesn’t bother me any more. I’ve kicked his face in once when he was biting my leg. Now he just stays under the bushes and growls at me. I don’t bother to give him a dirty look.
There were these two other dogs. They’d always run out in the street and chase me. I kicked them. They’d come back and I’d kick ‘em again. I don’t have any problems with ’em any more, because they got hit chasin’ cars. They’re both dead.
I don’t like many of my customers, ‘cause they’ll cuss me if they don’t get their papers just exactly in the right place. This one guy cussed me up and down for about fifteen minutes. I don’t want to repeat what he called me. All the words, just up and down. He told me he drives past all those blank drugstores on his blank way home and he could stop off at one of ’em and get a blank newspaper. And I’m just a blank convenience.
I was so mad at him. I hated his guts. I felt like taking a lead pipe to him or something. But I kept my mouth shut, ’cause I didn’t know if the press guy’d get mad at me and I’d lose my route. You see, this guy could help me or he could hurt me. So I kept my mouth shut.
A lot of customers are considerate but a lot of ‘em aren’t. Lot of ’em act like they’re doing you such a favor taking the paper from you. It costs the same dime at a drugstore. Every time they want you to do something they threaten you: (imitates nasty, nasal voice) “Or I’ll quit.”
What I really can’t stand: you’ll be collecting and somebody’ll come out and start telling you all their problems. “I’m going to visit my daughter today, yes, I am. She’s twenty-two, you know.” “Look here, I got all my sons home, see the army uniforms?” They’ll stand for like half an hour. I got two or three like that, and they always got something to say to me. I’ll have like two hours wasted listening to these people blabbin’ before they pay me. Mmm, I don’t know. Maybe they’re lonely. But they’ve got a daughter and a son, why do they have to blab in my ear?
A lot of the younger customers have had routes and they know how hard it is, how mean people are. They’ll be nicer to you. They tend to tip you more. And they don’t blab all day long. They’ll just pay you and smile at you. The younger people frequently offer me a coke or something.
Older people are afraid of me, a lot of them. The first three, four weeks—(muses) they seemed so afraid of me. They think I’m gonna rob ‘em or something. It’s funny. You wouldn’t think it’d be like this in a small town, would you? They’re afraid I’m gonna beat ’em up, take their money. They’d just reach through the door and give me the money. Now they know you so well, they invite you in and blab in your ear for half an hour. It’s one or the other. I really don’t know why they’re afraid. I’m not old, so I wouldn’t know how old people feel.
Once in a while I come home angry, most of the time just crabby. Sometimes kids steal the paper out of people’s boxes. I lose my profits. It costs me a dime. The company isn’t responsible, I am. The company wouldn’t believe you probably that somebody stole the paper.